Monday, December 12, 2011

Public Scrutiny When Privatizing the Public Sector

The Problem:
After we abolished the parliament and the government, the civil administration feels rather lonely and unsupervised. So why don't we abolish the administration too?
No Civil Service is considered a bastion of effectiveness and innovation. If efficiency could reach private sector level, it is said that income tax could be reduce to half. Google government inefficiency and you will find an endless series of cartoons. I could not resist to copy a few.

Inefficiency is inherent to the current system of public administration. Explanations abound: Politicians don't like cuts in the public sector as it is complicated, long term and against a strong constituency. Using the coercive power to raise taxes is always easier. Though these options are in no way mutually exclusive. The waves of privatization of public sector functions have reduced cost but too often at the expense of quality. In short, it is complicated.  

The Solution:
In the new democracy advocated by this blog, every law has its own budget. The logical next step is that every law has its own administration. How does it work:

  1. The public proposes a law using their like-button 
  2. The cost of implementation of the bill is an integral part of this public discussion (even the type of taxes to raise the funds are discussed.)
  3. A random sample of the electorate approves or rejects the bill.
  4. Using the cost proposal as a ceiling, private companies can bid to implement the law. 
  5. A good performance system ensures efficiency does not come at the cost of quality.
  6. Other private companies bid for supervision and audit of the implementation including complaint handling.
  7. At all times implementation should be fully transparent (with the usual exceptions) and any citizen can ask for clarifications. 
Sure, not every civil servant will disappear (think national defense), but this is the vision. This is what should lead us towards our goal. And yes, privatization is preferably local in line with the principles of agile reform.

The Transition:
Privatization has been the flavor of the week for several decades now. But administrations have been growing simultaneously certainly if contracting-in is taken into account. And it has gone at the expense of quality as far as the time I spent talking to a machine to get public services is a reliable indicator. 
Civil service reform is as complicated as it is unpopular. The current crisis might be a good opportunity to implement unpopular measures and to start a process of real privatization. 
Still, a better approach might be to cut the public administration into very small autonomous pieces that have distinct function with a performance target linked to a fixed budget. This has been tried in various sectors around the world with mixed results. 
No doubt, abolishing the the administration is fraud with difficulties. Funny enough, when I try to explain this to friends, they find it so much more plausible than abolishing elections.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Save the Rich!

It does not really matter how you contribute, as long as we all start doing and work in the same direction. I just wish each contribution could be as funny as the one made by Garfunkel and Oates.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Don't Use the Budget to Pass the Budget!

The Problem:
Belgium has a government at last. 540 days after the elections a new government will be in office. The budget was the final step in the negotiations. But this final phase only started on day 517. 23 days were sufficient, not because the budget negotiations were unimportant but because the budget can always be used to pass the budget. This has been common practice for a while. As a result most European countries have built up astronomical debt which is the main cause of the current economic crisis. 
Citizens have eagerly supported politicians that mortgaged the economic future of our children. As if we were in a collective prisoners dilemma, we preferred to have our part of the welfare state rather than investing wisely in productive and sustainable growth.

The Solution:
I remember when we decided to increase our daughter's pocket money on the condition that she would buy her own cloths. Her need for designer brands suddenly evaporated. She carefully considered whether she really needed another pair of trousers. 
To avoid that the budget is used to pass the budget and that unproductive expenditure seeps into the budget, every law should have its own (multi-year) budget and when the law is passed citizens immediately also pass the tax bill attached to it. 
The law will also stipulate what type of tax is used to pay for a particular service: An import tax, a progressive income tax, a property tax, or levy. Citizens will be able to consider whether the proposed law is worth the cost (tax) and whether the polluter pays principle is applied (i.e. the groups in society that profit also contribute combined with a healthy solidarity from the rich and the strong towards the poor and the weak.) 
Finally, the tax payer can judge whether the law will result in an economic gain that is worth borrowing for (i.e. economic growth will outpace interest rates.)

The Transition:
Nothing stops the application of this idea starting today though the cold-turkey transition might be considered too radical. 
An intermediate step could be to make the budget more transparent and encourage public debate about it. It is surprising that the citizens are not interested in the figures. Politicians seem to know that so they don't try to gain political visibility through a strong position on the budget details. Maybe that is why the budget in Belgium got negotiated in only 23 days. Or maybe the government negotiations over the budget were short because the negotiators did not want citizens to have time to scrutinize the budget. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Stop Horsetrade: Abolish Parliament

The Problem:
In short, this is what happened: The British People voted for MPs to represent them, these representatives choose Tony Blair as their Prime Minister who decided that it would be wise to hug Colonel Gaddafi. As a result, Great Brittain was protected from terrorism, Sami al-Saadi and his family were thrown in jail and tortured, and Shell signed a gas exploration deal for 850 million USD. All under the watchful eye of the people's representatives in Parliament. And now we should be surprised that Mr. Sami al-Saadi does not trust the Gibson Inquiry, a panel set up by the prime minister...

As explained in previous posts, parliament's task is to make laws, approve the budget and control the government. In this post, the control function is reviewed and as proven by the story above, parliament is not doing very well. Daily parliaments are asking questions to the Cabinets of this world, but party politics and horse trading decides the tone of the debate and the outcome of most interpellations. 
Even parliamentary inquiries are rarely credible because real or potential conflicts of interest are rarely even acknowledged: How can a parliamentary inquiry credibly deliberate the News of the World phone hacking scandal if their re-election is dependent on media coverage? How can a parliamentary investigation credibly establish whether the Belgian child molester Dutroux was protected by "people in high places"?

Power corrupts, power without parliamentary control corrupts absolutely. As a result, sacrificing a political dissident and his family for a lucrative corporate deal seems to become an acceptable course of action.'

The Solution:
Simple: Abolish Parliament. I know that we have already abolished parliament in a previous blog, but this time it is just to confirm that for the control function we do not need to keep parliament. 
To replace parliament's control function, all policy deliberation and implementation should be public and open to participation by voters. (Well actually, former voters because we have abolished voting, remember?) The right to interpellation will be extended to all citizens by allowing them to post their question on the government interpellation website. Any question that receives a like or +1 from say 1% of the citizens, will need to be answered by cabinet (or whatever we will replace it with once we have abolished the cabinet too.)
Parliamentary investigations are just abolished without replacement. 
A host of independent audits, commissions and experts can be established to strengthen the control function but they can be called on by any citizen and they report to the people. 

The Transition:
Any decent representative of the people in parliament should start this process NOW. Nothing stops parliamentarians or congresspersons from having a blog where people can debate what questions should be asked to check the government. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Let's occupy the occupiers!

The problem:
The occupy movement has created energy for reform. But who will claim this reform? Slavoj Zizek said the following in his interview with Al Jazeera: (This is a slightly shortened version, I hope I am doing Slovoj justice.)
Who will fill the gap? We need to fill the opening and take risks because the existing order has come to an end. We see it more and more through a series of phenomena: economic crises are becoming a permanent state of emergency and new divisions are raising up within states not only between rich and poor but also between those included and excluded from public space and political engagement. If we do nothing we will approach a new type of authoritarian society because the marriage between capitalism and democracy is over. The battle now is not will things go on or will there be a revolution? We should fight the most difficult struggle for who will appropriate this energy of protest? 

The solution:
Applying the principles of agile reform:
  1. Let's keep repeating our vision: Government should be by and for the 99%. Now let's implement all changes that contribute to this goal. Changes should be small but many.
  2. There is no need to talk until we have the silver bullet. Several solutions can be competing to solve the same problem. Appropriate the energy of protest before the wrong changes fill the space!
  3. It is time to start doing. Just choose your topic, check whether the outcome will contribute to "Government by and for the 99%" and go for it!
  4. Solve the problem in your street, your neighborhood, your province, your state, your country or the world. But in this order. 
  5. Learn from failures but never stop doing! Remember Slavoj: If we do nothing we will approach a new type of authoritarian society!

The transition:
There is no transition to this new reality. It can start now. Choose the battle within your reach and start reforming. Just do it! 
My blog is my first step. Now what else am I going to do?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Improve Democracy: Abolish Parliament

The Problem:
The functions of parliament cover representation and consensus building: representation was dealt with in a previous blog and the conclusion is that parliaments are definitely not representative of the people and random sampling is much more representative (probably simpler and cheaper too).
Apart from approving decisions, parliaments contribute to democracy by negotiating consensus or at least a majority on issues. Discussions are mainly about laws, control of the government and the budget
Parliament is supposed to consists of representatives of every section of society but the 99% does not feel represented. No wonder because more than half of the US congresspersons are millionaires and therefore belong to the 1%. It will not be too different in the rest of the world. (graph by Chris Piascik.)

Access to our representatives is crowded and only specialists manage to get through. The specialists are expensive and in the US alone about 3.5 billion USD was spent on lobbying in 2010. That amounts to about 6.5 million USD per congressperson! No wonder the 99% cannot afford to have their voice heard.

The Solution:
Simple: abolish parliament! Who will discuss laws, control government and agree on a budget? Let's discuss drafting of laws in this blog. The next blogs will discuss control of government and the budget.
In the system without parliament, anybody can draft a law and put it on the government draft bill site. Every citizen has a log-in into that draft bill site and can like or +1 a draft proposal. Once a threshold of say 2% of the number of citizens has like-ed or +1-ed the draft bill proposal, the draft bill will be tabled and a date for a vote by a randomly selected panel of citizens is set. 
Between the moment the bill is tabled and the moment the bill is voted on, a discussion takes place on the draft bill website. Amendments can be proposed and like-ed or +1-ed. It is in the interest of the proposers of the bill to include all popular amendments because it will increase the chances that their final bill will be accepted. 
Once the draft bill is final, those participating in the discussion take a position pro or against the bill with a clear explanation why. Again each position can be like-ed or +1-ed. Now the panel of citizens is randomly selected. Each of the groups who has at least 10% of the likes or +1s can make a presentation to the randomly selected panel. (So maximum 10 presentations.) Each group therefore has an interest to join other statements until they reach at least 10% of the total likes or +1s. If not they will not be able to present their view. 
Presentations are not face to face but through the website so everybody can see and the panel remains anonymous so it can not be lobbied by big money.
After the presentations, the panel votes and the bill is accepted or rejected. Simple!

The Transition:
1. As with the representation approach explained a previous blog, the first step would be the use of this system in parallel with the existing parliament. Parliament would still vote but the drafting by citizens is informing their proposed amendments in parliament. A hybrid system has already been used in Iceland to develop a new constitution but world wide general assemblies will be crucial in further developing such a hybrid system. 
2. In stead of lobby groups, the groups with more than 10% of the likes or +1s on the draft bill website will get the opportunity to address congresspersons or parliamentarians. First informally, later in parliament.
3. Once the system has been thoroughly tested, a major overhaul of the constitution through crowdsourcing can introduce legislative drafting in line with the proposal above.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Direct democracy: stop all elections!

The Problem:
The 99% do not feel represented by their political elite. The political system only represents big business or entrenched elites or wealthy white men

The 99% are right that parliaments are a very bad representation of society. They are elected by a small electoral majority cast by often just over half the eligible voters. But this electoral bias is negligible compared to the selection bias to get on an electoral list. Only a very specific phenotype will be considered in our current political system. 

While I love the general assemblies and decision making by concensus, Machiavelli tells me that we should test the system with a representative of Capitalism Magazine in the room before we can endorse it. (Grateful to AnonOps Comms for the drawing)

General assemblies seem to do a brilliant job at consensus building. But general assemblies are not representative and those who are trained orators unfortunately will wield a bigger influence than others. (As you can read in the text that accompanies the drawing on AnonOps Comms) That is not close enough to the radical form of direct participation we are aiming for.

The Solution:
We need to separate the consensus building function from the representative function of political representation (senate, congress, parliament). Let's discuss the consensus building function later and focus on the representative function in this blog. 

The best representation can be achieved by taking a representative sample. Statistics tells us exactly what the error margin is. So no more elections, just random sampling. Say we randomly select 400 people to vote in name of the American people, then we know that the error margin is about 5%. This means that if 220 out of 400 selected representatives vote in favor of a decision that we can be almost certain that the majority of the whole population is in favor. No electoral system can provide this level of certainty. And it is much cheaper too.

The Transition:
How do we get parliament to abolish itself? Yes, this will be a challenges. But considering what the occupy wall street has achieved, it is certainly possible. These could be the steps we take:
1. General Assemblies test random sampling voting to show that it can work. (Remember we are only talking about representation NOT about consensus building.)
2. Independent representatives in local and national parliaments are lobbied to vote in line with the majority of a randomly selected group.
3. Once it works, a major overhaul of the constitution can introduce voting by randomly selected groups.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Who needs an agenda if you have a vision?

The Problem:
Journalists do not know how to change complex political systems and in their ignorance accuse the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters of not knowing what they want. Even sympathetic press states that “the protesters have not done a good job of focusing their complaints—and thus have been skewered as malcontents who don't know what they stand for or want.

The Solution:
The change the 99% stand for can be achieved without listing a detailed political program. Change of complex systems is not focused. It is driven by a common goal and a plethora of trials and errors. I like to call it agile reform. The term agile comes from computer programming. When programs became too complicated to be written in a traditional project management cycle (Design, plan, implement, evaluate, design, …) agile programming was invented. 

The concept is not new. The most cited textbook example of agile change is the reform of the air traffic control system. The agile approach survived while the traditional project management approach has swallowed billions (current estimates 51 billion USD). Not surprisingly the military has adopted agile reform as their main method for innovation. What the 99% want can be achieved through the same method.

The Transition:
Agile Reform can be introduced by setting a common goal and unleashing a myriad of small improvements. I like to define agile reform through the following five principles:
1.      Reform is introduced through iterations of improvements. There is no coherent reform agenda, only a common goal.
2.      Solutions are NOT standardized and several solutions for the same problem are encouraged. Darwin will ensure the best solution survives.
3.      Reform is successful when any small change makes a difference. If you keep improving systems within your reach, over time improvements can be measured at the level of the aggregate system.
4.      Centralisation and coordination is only used when absolutely necessary. Improvements are managed at the smallest possible unit size. Central control is not effective.
5.      Prioritization of tasks is discouraged. The more change the better. Trying is as important as succeeding.